(Part 1 of 3 of God, the Church, and LGBT)
In my last post titled “God Really Likes You, But You Suck: The Confusing Message of Grace” I shared about the subject of God’s favor. If you have not read it already I strongly encourage you to do so before reading on. It will make a lot more sense related to the theology behind what I am about to say and potentially answer a lot of your questions.
In summary of it: we have confused our understanding of grace, which is often defined as God’s “unmerited favor” toward us. It is not that one must do something wrong first, thus unmeriting themselves, before undeserved favor is offered; instead, it is favor freely given that never had to be merited in the first place.
In other words, we have wrongly used “unmerited” to define grace when instead it should be used only as a characteristic of it. God has favored every one of us since “before time eternal,” which means he has always favored you, currently favors you, and will always favor you…regardless of anything we have done or not done. And it is only when one realizes this overwhelming favor that one can fully enter into relationship with God and obey him.
But all too often the church has overemphasized the “unmerited” part over the “favor,” constantly pointing out what it considers people’s inadequacies and failures. To do this is the equivalent of a parent telling their child, “I really love you. You’re actually quite an obnoxious pain to raise and don’t deserve my love, but I choose to love you anyway.” Or someone telling their date, “You have a beautiful smile. In actuality it’s quite ugly, but I simply choose to think of it as beautiful.” The result of such an emphasis is a dose of uplifting favor mixed together with an often more powerful dose of down casting shame.
But never has this overemphasis on the “unmerited” been more true than with the attitude of much of the church regarding people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). For some reason with this issue, the church has felt an extra inherent need to point out peoples’ “undeservedness” and to insist on change before they can receive God’s favor or acceptance – in other words they must merit their unmerited favor.
There is much talk in Christianity about the faith journey being a process. One can receive their “salvation,” thus being freely forgiven of their sins and being assured of eternal life with God in heaven; then begins the process of “sanctification,” in which one slowly begins to shed the “sinful” behaviors in their lives in order to become more and more like Christ (while also recognizing that no one ever perfectly arrives).
But this is not so when it comes to those who identify as LGBT. In fact, same sex attraction, for example, is the only attraction that I am aware of that is often considered “sin” at the very moment of “temptation,” prior to any action.
I once heard a well-respected Christian leader tell a story about a gentleman who confessed to her he was dealing with same sex attraction. Even though he had not even acted on it and even though he faithfully had worked for her ministry, she stated, “Of course, I knew then that he could not be a Christian.”
Really? Would we say the same thing about other attractions that the church labels as “sin?” If a person struggling with overeating confesses a temptation to chocolate would we say, “Of course I knew then he could not be a Christian.” If a former alcoholic still struggles with thirst, is he or she then not a Christian? If a person struggles with anger issues, is he or she then obviously not a Christian? If a person looks at a neighbor’s wife, is he then not a Christian?
Now obviously a life consumed by un-Christ-like behaviors can be a tell-tale sign that someone is not truly following Christ. Grace is not a license to simply do what we want. But when we make individual attractions a litmus test for acceptance or salvation we miss the entire point of the gospel. Otherwise who would make it in? What would we even “confess?”
And so we send off our gay children to conversion camps, hoping to make their attractions totally disappear so then they can be saved. We tell couples and transgenders they are not welcome in our doors, saying come back to us when you first get things right. All the while individual heterosexuals having premarital sex sit weekly in our pews and people struggling with gluttony, lust and anger issues sit on our deacon boards or preach weekly from the pulpit.
Several years ago famous Christian singer Ray Boltz came out as gay. Millions of Christians, myself included, had been inspired by his song “Thank You” about a dream in which he thanks a Sunday school teacher for leading him to the Lord. This was an eye opener to me because there is no doubt in my mind from the lyrics of that song that Ray had an authentic meaningful relationship with Christ. The 55 year old explained in an interview how he had struggled ever since he was a child with same-sex attraction but was finally coming out now because he realized no matter how much he tried and prayed he could not change. I remember weeping that day, not because he came out, but because of the pain he had to endure all those years.
I asked God, “Why? Why would you allow someone…someone who has dedicated their life to you…to struggle through something that was obviously so painful to him? It was obviously not a ‘choice’ he made. Why would you allow anyone to have to struggle through that?” His response was, “To teach my church about grace.”
I didn’t know at the time what all that meant. I had not yet discovered what I have since learned in more recent years about grace. God’s favor, freely given, which we never have to merit. No one has to earn.
I suspect the reason so many in the church fear not emphasizing first and foremost anyone’s underservedness is because they are afraid of compromising truth. But how much more is it a compromise if we leave out one the most central truths of the gospel…grace…God’s freely given, unconditional favor toward us.
And when it comes to issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity in which favor is actually even deemphasized, it becomes not just a case of a dose of uplifting favor mixed with down casting shame but simply a powerful dose of down casting shame. Considering that statistically LGBT youth have significantly higher rates of depression and suicide than their peers, that should certainly give us pause. And while the reasons a person commits suicide are often more complex than just a single cause to blame, are we sure we want the church, by emphasizing unfavorability over favor, to continue to be a part of it?
On this issue the church has totally missed it and utterly failed.
As noted in my previous post, there is a cry that emanates from everyone’s heart, starting from early childhood. “Does anyone like me? Am I loved? Do I matter? Am I okay as I am?” For anyone who was born feeling “different,” who doesn’t fit into the norm, who’s often been bullied, and who’s been told by society and the church to change or else, that cry becomes that much stronger.
And so while LGBT individuals have continued to cry louder and louder each year, “Favor me, favor me, favor me!” the church has responded with “unmerited, unmerited, unmerited” all the more. Until, finally, in one last cry, through media, culture and legislation the LGBT community has shouted, “Favor me or else.” The church has no one to blame but themselves. And while I have seen significant changes begin to happen in the hearts and minds of churches and individuals, it could easily be argued, “Too little, too late.”
God favors all people. God favors those who are LGBT. And if God does….so should the church.
This post is part 1 of a 3 part series. So far I have avoided discussing the question of whether differences in sexual orientation or gender identity are “sin.” The question is actually too complex and my answer too nuanced to answer here, including our misunderstandings of “sexuality” and the meaning of “sin.” I will discuss those more in future posts. The point is that whether something is sin or not is simply irrelevant to the fact that God likes you. God favors all people. God favors those who are LGBT. And if God does, so should those who claim a Christian faith.
Now I’ve talked a lot about what is grace, but a brief note about what is not.
There are two opposite approaches in the church these days that have the appearance of “grace” but are not. The first is the attempt by some to offer “grace” by the statement, “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.” They feel that by mentioning the “love” they are offering favor. However, what they fail to understand is that most people who identify as LGBT have dealt with their feelings for years, for many their entire life. They see their feelings as a part of them – a part of who they are. Thus to say “hate the sin” is to say you hate them. Once again it’s as confusing as telling a person that have a beautiful smile but it’s ugly – but 10 times more hurtful, if not more.
On the other end of the spectrum is those in the church, who out of compassion and empathy, say that same sex attracted individuals and transgenders are living perfectly within God’s plan. It may feel more loving, but “grace” it is not. What it does is simply move the merit line, changing the requirements to receive God’s favor, which we have said there are not. This is not statement about what is sin and what isn’t. But anytime you change a merit line and call it “grace” you are simply trapping people once again in the belief that you have to live life right to be liked. Grace is an amazing thing to be experienced, and you don’t want anyone to miss out.
I have never personally struggled with feelings of same sex attraction or gender identity, but I’ve given plenty of legitimate reasons for God to not like me. The point is that when it comes to God’s favor, I stand in a place where when compared to those who are LGBT, I am neither more liked nor less. We are equally both loved and liked.
Now to anyone reading this who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or any other identity that has been rejected by the church, know this:
God favors you. He really does. He has favored you since before you were born. He favors you now and he always will. Nothing can change that.
Jesus said that he is the way, the truth, and the life. If he is the truth and he is God, then he gets to define who you are, not anyone within the church. If anyone tells you differently, they are wrong.
God called himself the “I Am.” That means whatever he says, is what is.
You are loved.
You are accepted.
You are cherished.
You are liked.
You are a favorite child of God.
Photo Courtesy of Snow Monkey Pottery at https://www.flickr.com/photos/rwangsa/452128709